Do you love stingrays?
So do we! It baffles us that so many people out there do not know about these fantastic animals... but I guess that's how Matthew Kolmann helps out. A self-proclaimed "stingray enthusiast," Matthew's work helps teach people a little bit more about these amazing animals.
Not to mention he also knows a lot about other animals, too. Like piranhas... so cool, right?! Dive on in to this "Behind the Fins" interview!
The Fins United Initiative: You are a self-proclaimed stingray enthusiast, so I must ask: what species is your favourite and why?
Matthew Kolmann: Hmmm, there are many cool rays out there. I think that maybe Potamotrygon orbignyi might be my favorite. They are freshwater rays found throughout the Amazon and Guianas and are strange because they (and some other Potamotrygon species) are the only sharks and rays in the world that eat insects (the aquatic larvae of terrestrial insects). They do this by chewing their prey apart, something we recently described - and a behavior people had thought was restricted to mammals.
TFUI: What are you currently studying right now?
MK: I’m studying the evolution of feeding, diet, and skeletal architecture in piranhas, pacus, and their allies. I’m interested in how predators are shaped by their prey - how anatomy and behavior are intertwined. Carnivorous piranhas and herbivorous pacus eat a wide variety of prey - from aquatic grasses, flowers, seeds and fruits to just the fins or scales of other fishes, and sometimes whole fishes too.
TFUI: And what makes them different from other... fish?
MK: Piranhas and pacus have solid skulls made for biting through tough materials, skulls which in some ways are similar to our skulls, and less like the skulls of other fishes which have many joints and are therefore very flexible -
some fishes like the sling-jaw wrasse can shoot their jaws away from their face, nearly 100% of their head length! The almost mammal-like skulls in piranhas, how have they helped these fishes exploit such different diets?
TFUI: How did you switch from elasmobranchs to piranhas? What have you learned so far?
MK: I miss stingrays now and again, and they still offer this inherent fascination for me. I became really interested in the series of questions I’ve outlined above, i.e. how predators are shaped by their prey, and I explored these with freshwater stingrays for my PhD. When I was in the field collecting rays, we’d catch lots of piranhas and I thought: ‘wow what a cool system to use’ and the rest is sort of history. Rays and sharks are typically large and are not easy to house in museums. As more of my research shifted towards using museum collections, rays proved to harder and harder to use: museums didn’t have many of them, many hadn’t been identified, and they were either too large or too rare to use for a lot of the analyses I’m interested in. So, I found a study system (piranhas and pacus) that were more amenable to study (and fun too!).
TFUI: If you weren’t a scientist what would you be?
MK: I imagine I’d be interested in environmental law. I worked for a time with Florida’s state fish and wildlife division, and the staff lawyers were the real rock stars, the real movers. Most companies will just not keep environmental stewardship in mind when they’re working, it’s just not in the current economic model we use. Environmental lawyers really have a critical role in executing the law and regulating industry. Litigation may not be efficient, but its seems effective.
TFUI: Do you keep a particular schedule or is every day different?
MK: Sometimes I wish my schedule was more regular, but then I think I might run the risk of being bored. My day-to- day activities change, but I generally am writing and running analyses in the morning, dealing with logistics in the afternoon, resting, then getting some last minute reading or emails answered in the late evening. There’s a couple days a week where we have lab meetings and discussion groups, which I find really help me keep current with the literature and the pulse of what people in the field are doing. But travel is a big part of being an academic, and I find I’m making some sort of trip - be it to conferences, workshops, or museums - maybe about once every 1.5 months or more frequently.
TFUI: Do you find museums important? Do you think they help convey wildlife conservation messages?
MK: I think museums are incredibly important. People can easily ignore information if they don’t experience it - so zoos, aquariums, botanical gardens, and museums all give the public easier access to a more comprehensive world view. Having strong conservation and research programs at museums complements research done in universities and industry and makes for more diverse perspectives on conservation. Nowadays people are asking more from museums - more interaction, more interpretation - and I think that’s been good in forcing museums (and all scientists more broadly) to communicate their findings. That’s a critical part of being a scientist - advising the public. Zoos, aquariums, and museums all have commitments to outreach and research and each have their own message, their own audience, to communicate to. Zoos and aquariums I think communicate at the level of ‘now,’ meaning you can watch an animal behave in the moment. Museums offer what we call in evolutionary biology a ‘deep- time’ approach - while zoos give you a single snapshot of today, museums give you a photo album of past snapshots.
TFUI: Does the US have good relationship with the ocean? What can be done to improve it?
MK: Working with US shark fisheries during my Master’s really changed my opinion on how effective fisheries can work, and how stakeholders and resource managers can work together for the better. The coastal longline shark fishery I found to be well-managed, with clear communication between the fishermen and the government. I’m less well-informed for other fisheries - but of course, some are better, some are worse. What is clear in my mind from traveling is that the US really has done an good job with many of its fisheries. I was very surprised to see that most of Europe and Canada didn’t even have the barest minimum of laws and infrastructure in place for sustainable fisheries; industrialized countries that many think of as more ‘green’ than the US. But it seems like there’s a constant fight in the US to justify federal and state environmental regulation, so while Europe and Canada might be slow to modernize, they might have less trouble ‘sustaining’ their sustainability efforts.
TFUI: What is your favorite part of your job?
MK: I like working on ideas I’m interested in, every day. My ideas or the ideas of my friends and colleagues. There are very few occupations that offer you the flexibility to work on what you’re truly interested in. I also love having just excellent colleagues - I think one of the greatest allures to academia is just how often you are exposed to really interesting people with really interesting ideas.
TFUI: What’s next for you? Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
MK: Hopefully in a faculty position somewhere. The jury’s out as to where - but I’m happy to move about anywhere in the US or Canada. I’m really looking forward to advising students of my own and putting a lab together. Not to mention that adapting my research program to a new region/new fishes seems like a fun challenge that I’m eager to try!
TFUI Founder Melissa C. Marquez is author of all animal bios and "Behind the Fins" segments.
SEE MELISSA'S TEDx TALK HERE:
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